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First criminal trial of Trump is a historic and solemn moment for the United States

(CNN) — The United States will cross a historic threshold on Monday when a former president goes on trial for the first time in a case with fateful significance because Donald Trump could return to the Oval Office next year. When the potential Republican candidate enters the courtroom for the start of jury selection, he and the country will enter a new state of reality as the legal and political worlds collide in a trial almost guaranteed to deepen Americans’ bitter ideological divisions.

The trial, related to hush money payments to an adult film actress before the 2016 election, will mark another extraordinary twist in Trump’s history, whose relentless testing of the limits of presidential decorum and the law has caused almost nine years of political turmoil and may still have years to come. It raises the possibility that, depending on the jury’s verdict, the Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential election could be a convicted criminal. And given the nature of the case—details about a payment to a woman who claimed to have had a sexual relationship with Trump, which he denies—it could reflect poorly on Trump’s character and ethics as voters weigh their decisions in November.

Hush money payments are not illegal. Trump is accused of falsifying business records to hide unflattering information from voters that could have harmed his campaign, in an alleged first example of electoral interference. The fact that this case stems from alleged personal conduct means it could have less political impact than the other three pending trials of Trump, which are based on larger constitutional and legal concerns relevant to the powers of the presidency.

But the success of the former president’s legal delay tactics in the other cases—related to his attempts to subvert the 2020 elections and hoarding classified documents—means the hush money trial may be the only one held before the elections. And Trump—although entitled to the presumption of innocence and the presentation of evidence like any other defendant—is showing signs of growing agitation at the prospect of the trial and the indignity it represents for someone who used to be the most powerful man in the world.

Still, if only one of the four cases had to be concluded before the elections, it would be this one.

The United States, unlike historically less stable democracies, is not a nation accustomed to seeing its former heads of state subjected to trial. Although the circumstances of this case and Trump’s broader legal troubles are unique, this new precedent opens the possibility of future presidents being less immune to judicial investigations. In fact, Trump has already warned that if he wins in November, he will dedicate his second term to “retribution” and use the powers of the presidency to pursue his enemies, including the Biden family.

None of this is even remotely normal. But it is all part of the extreme political, legal, and constitutional challenges that Trump constantly poses to American institutions and is signaling would intensify if he wins a second term. The incessant cacophony caused by his volcanic personality is designed to make it difficult for Americans to process each Rubicon that is crossed.

Trump has tried to tarnish the trial before it even begins

The former president has made fervent attempts to discredit the case, the judge, and the legal system itself, in part to protect himself against any future guilty verdict. He has criticized Manhattan District Attorney, Democrat Alvin Bragg, who is leading the prosecution, for being politically biased. And Judge Juan Merchan extended a gag order after Trump mentioned his daughter, who has worked for Democrats, on social media.

While the trial will not be televised, it is expected to be a national spectacle during the six-week to two-month period it is expected to last. In his previous civil trials, including a case of massive fraud that went against him, Trump has used trial breaks to hold televised press conferences, often angry and freewheeling, to attack the probity of the court and air issues in the case. He has often been a stubborn defendant, flouting courtroom codes of conduct and angering judges. At one point during a civil fraud trial, Judge Arthur Engoron chastised Trump for turning the courtroom into a campaign rally and asked his lawyer, “Can you control your client?”

Despite all of Trump’s claims of unfair treatment by the judicial system, many other defendants would likely have faced much harsher treatment for their attacks on trials, prosecutors, and judicial officials.

While the Manhattan trial is held four days a week, the former president will have to attend, at a time when President Joe Biden will be free to campaign in swing states. This is one reason why Trump’s 2024 campaign is unfolding both in the courts and according to the traditional rhythms of a White House candidacy.

Trump knows he cannot control his fate

The moment Trump walks into the courtroom on Monday will be of unfathomable drama and a test for the members of the citizen pool who will be examined to serve on a jury like no other in U.S. history. “He is the most famous person in the world. And when you come face to face with someone who has that kind of charisma, that kind of power, it tends to be intimidating, it tends to be impactful, it tends to be exciting,” said Robert Hirschhorn, a jury and trial consultant, on CNN last Friday.

The task of finding jurors who lack strong opinions and biases against a defendant and the legal system, who can serve for an extended period, and who can make judgments based solely on the law and evidence, is complex in any case. Given that the defendant is Trump, legal experts predict that jury selection could last a week or more, needing to be completed before prosecutors present their opening arguments against the former president.

But as he contemplates the start of his trial, Trump seems to be realizing that his fate is no longer in his hands and will soon be in the hands of 12 anonymous citizens he cannot intimidate, persuade, or politicize. “Jury selection is largely luck. It depends on who you get. It’s very unfair that I’m having a trial there,” Trump said Friday, alluding to New York’s liberal tilt.

Trump is already trying to turn the trial into a circus to bolster his defense and his main campaign argument that he is being persecuted by “deranged prosecutors” trying to prevent his return to the Oval Office. In February, at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he defined himself as a “proud political dissident” and compared himself to South African anti-apartheid hero Nelson Mandela and the late Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny. On Saturday night, in the swing state of Pennsylvania, Trump promised, “I will fight for the freedom of 325 million Americans,” as he embarked on an unprecedented shuttle between a criminal trial and an election campaign. On Sunday, he used his social network Truth to denounce “an unprecedented and blatant attack” on his campaign and claimed Biden coordinated with Bragg. There is no evidence to support this.

Trump’s arguments are convincing to many Republican voters who embraced his narrative of persecution and quickly made him their candidate this year. But, will he be able to convince undecided voters in the general election that he is a victim, or will his first trial thicken a cloud of criminality that could doom his White House hopes and improve Biden’s chances of securing a second term? Some polls have shown that a minority of Republican voters may have doubts about voting for the former president if he is found guilty after a trial. But the circumstances are so unusual that it is impossible to predict how politics would unfold in the event of conviction or acquittal.

The political uncertainty surrounding the case is exacerbated by the charged backdrop. There is no clear leader in national polls in the race between Biden and Trump, which is likely to be decided by thousands of votes in a handful of contested states. The president’s prospects are threatened by high interest rates and soaring prices causing pain to millions of Americans. Biden spent the weekend presiding over a successful defense of Israel after Iran launched hundreds of missiles and drones at the Jewish state, raising fears of a wider war in the Middle East. The deteriorating situation could bolster Trump’s claims that the world is unraveling under his successor’s watch. That means this and any future trial against Trump—though unprecedented disruption to a presidential election campaign—might just be one of the factors deciding the fate of the White House in November.

Trump’s team has yet to reveal its hand

Trump is charged in Manhattan with falsifying business records to cover up a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels in what prosecutors say was an attempt to interfere in the 2016 election. Trump has pleaded not guilty and denied having a romantic relationship with Daniels.

“Manhattan hosts the country’s most significant business marketplace. We cannot allow New York businesses to manipulate their records to conceal criminal conduct,” Bragg wrote when revealing the indictment—the first against Trump—in April 2023. “The trail of money and lies exposes a pattern that, as alleged by the People, violates one of New York’s fundamental and basic business laws.”

Trump’s supporters claim he is a victim of selective and politicized justice because he is being prosecuted for what they argue is a novel legal theory in a case stemming from personal embarrassments and campaign finance infractions. But Bragg’s approach to the case identifies a common theme with other Trump accusations: Is a president accountable under the same laws as any other citizen, or is he above the law?

“This payment was made to deprive voters of essential information, which was then covered up with the intent to affect an election. … That’s the allegation: deceiving voters to gain power,” said Norm Eisen, CNN legal analyst and author of the new book “Trying Trump: A Guide to His First Election Interference Criminal Trial.”

Eisen added, “Now, Alvin Bragg may not prove it, but that is why this is an alleged case of election interference.”

Trump’s lawyers have argued that this trial should be delayed until the Supreme Court rules on his broad claims of presidential immunity stemming from the federal election interference case filed by special counsel Jack Smith. Although the initial conduct in question in this case occurred before Trump became president, prosecutors argue he signed the alleged cover-up to reimburse his lawyer Michael Cohen for false legal services while he was president.

As part of a desperate flurry of filings designed to delay accountability in the hush money case, the former president has also been claiming he cannot get a fair trial in New York, the city where he became famous but which has overwhelmingly voted against him. Merchan has rejected the efforts of Trump’s lawyers to move the trial to a jurisdiction where voters may be more favorable to Trump.

The former president faces 34 felony charges of first-degree falsifying of business records. If found guilty, he could face probation or a maximum sentence of 1 and a half to 4 years for each charge in a state prison. Many legal experts believe that as a person who has never been convicted of any crime or misdemeanor before, Trump would not face jail time, or if he did, the prison terms would run concurrently.

Trump’s lawyers have not yet indicated possible defenses. But they are almost certain to attack the credibility and testimony of both Cohen and Daniels. Cohen will face criticism for being an unreliable witness after serving time in prison for tax offenses, lying to Congress, and other crimes.

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